What started as a rift between teammates has spawned into one of the biggest fights in UFC history, as Jon Jones gets ready to defend his light heavyweight title against Rashad Evans on April 21 in Atlanta.
The two light heavyweights trained alongside each other, and at one time promised to never let the fight game interfere with their friendship or team. It’s funny how a title can change all that, and now the one-time friends have become bitter rivals.
Caught in the middle of all this are the teammates of Jones, who at one time or another were almost all teammates of Rashad Evans.
Despite bitter feelings back and forth between Jones and Evans, or even with Evans towards head coach Greg Jackson, the team has tried to stay out of it as best they can, letting the two fighters fuel up towards this ultimate showdown, but not abandoning either one of them as the fight approaches.
Sure, Evans hasn’t trained at Team Greg Jackson for well over a year, but it’s hard to ignore all the time he put in there, and helped build the gym’s foundation alongside names like Keith Jardine, Joey Villasenor, Diego Sanchez, and John Dodson.
If there’s one aspect about this rivalry that has Evans feeling remorseful, it has to do with his former teammates that all still express their love and friendship towards their former comrade, and wish that it didn’t all come to this.
“It’s tough. I hate to even put those guys in that position. Some times it’s been kind of a rift, and they let me know like ‘yo, you know what I kind of feel like it’s a little problem cause I got loyalty to you and at the same time I’m on the same team as Jon,’” Evans explained.
“It sucks that it even has to be that way, but the stage was set for it to happen. I feel bad for everybody else that gets caught in the collateral damage.”
Current Team Jackson fighter Brian Stann looks on the whole situation with a clear vision of how tough it’s been for the team. No one wanted to see two former friends and teammates fight, much less have it turn into such an emotionally charged situation.
“This fight is really bittersweet. It’s just tough all around. Jon is a really good kid, everybody loves him. Rashad is a great guy, who helped build that gym,” Stann said. “He grew up with the original guys who had blood, sweat, and tears. I mean him, Keith (Jardine), Joey (Villasenor), Nate (Marquardt), and so it’s really difficult.
“Nobody was looking to take sides, nobody wants either friendship to dissolve, everybody’s just excited for this fight to happen, get over with it, and be in the past.”
Ultimate Fighter winner John Dodson has been with Team Jackson since his start in MMA, and he looks at Evans like a big brother, and still considers him part of the team whether he ever trains there again or not.
“I don’t care what people are saying that he’s not part of the Jackson’s family,” Dodson told MMAWeekly Radio. “I still consider him to be part of the team, and so should everyone else.”
Of course some team members have been hurt by this Jones/Evans saga, and the talk that has turned nasty over the course of the last year or so.
Ricky Kottenstette, who has acted as Jackson’s team general manager for several years and literally grew up under Jackson since his teenage years, isn’t as diplomatic as his coach. He’s taken some of the things Evans has said about the team to heart, and doesn’t really see a way for this to be over without hurt feelings remaining.
“Frankly, I’m tired of hearing him bash Greg Jackson. My feelings behind it is I can’t wait for this thing to be over cause I’m tired of hearing him complain about how he was wronged by Greg. Greg cared about Rashad, and thought the world about Rashad, and it’s like he’s orchestrated this attack on Greg. To me, it’s a big blow. It bothers me and Greg always takes the high road, and he’s hurt by it. Rashad’s just been attacking and attacking, and he’s to the point now where he won’t even look at Greg,” Kottenstette told MMAWeekly.com.
“I kind of take it personal, Greg’s a better man than me, but I’m looking forward to the fight being done.”
Light heavyweight champion Jon Jones hasn’t felt odd feelings from any teammates during his training camp to prepare for Evans, but it’s hard to ignore that some fighters are still torn between their old friend and current teammate.
The only fighter that has chosen not to participate in Jones’ camp is former UFC light heavyweight Keith Jardine.
As a longtime friend of Evans, Jardine has continued to work at Jackson’s during Jones’ UFC 145 fight preparation, but hasn’t been involved in camp, training or sparring at all.
For Jones’ part, he feels no hard feelings about Jardine’s decision to remove himself from this situation because he respects him a great deal. He also understands this is no easy position to be in where he’s watching a fighter standing just a few feet away from him getting ready to try and destroy the dreams of another title run for his best friend.
“The only person that has chosen to make it pretty obvious that he’s not really in my corner is Keith Jardine. Keith is someone that I still respect, he’s the captain of our team, and we practice right next to each other all the time. He doesn’t help me train, which is fine, I’m comfortable with that. He’s keeping his loyalty to Rashad, and I respect that whole heartedly,” Jones told MMAWeekly Radio.
“At the end of the day, a friendship is way more important than a UFC career.”
Jardine knows this is a tough situation for everybody involved, maybe more so for himself than anybody else at Team Jackson.
“I’m glad it’s happening. I’ll be glad when it’s done. I don’t like being here in Albuquerque watching Jon train. I don’t watch him train out of respect for Jon. He’s a good guy, I don’t have no hard feelings towards him it’s just kind of a weird thing being in the gym and he’s training to fight one of my best friends,” Jardine commented.
“I don’t want to be in the middle of it. I want nothing to do with this fight. I’m just trying to stay out of it and not get in the middle of it. I hope this fight turns out to be the fight of the century, and I hope the best man wins.”
Most times when a fight is over, hard feelings can be put aside and everybody is willing to put the past behind them. No one seems to be sure that can happen after the volatile way Evans exited Jackson’s camp and team, and that may be the hardest part about this entire fight.
“We’d prefer both of them to come back and everybody would be fine, but I don’t think that’s ever going to happen again,” Stann stated.
As for Keith Jardine and his own relationship with Jon Jones, he hopes to take a few minutes to talk to the UFC light heavyweight champion before he ventures off to Atlanta to face Evans, and make sure there is no animosity between the two of them.
“I think there’s been kind of an unsaid thing between us and he knows where I’m coming from, and I’ve been really just trying to stay out of it,” said Jardine.
“Honestly, I think I might have a couple words with him. Honestly, I go to training and I’ll see him sparring and stuff and I’ll leave cause I don’t want nothing to do with watching him spar and I don’t want anybody thinking I’m a spy or anything like that. I just leave that alone. I don’t even pay attention to him when he’s in the gym.”
The split has been tough on everybody at Jackson’s, but they can all agree on one thing – that they hope it all comes to an end once UFC 145 is over.
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